Middle East is a fascinating part of the world to live in and to do business in – it’s challenging, but also very rewarding. The economic and geopolitical situation in each country is important to understand. It is worth mentioning as well that there are some fundamental cultural aspects of working in the Middle East which can have a big impact on your success, both in terms of winning new contracts and satisfying customers.
Think big and think flexible
The first thing to point out is that this is a region with big ambitions, big budgets and lots of greenfield opportunities! The aviation market has doubled in the last 10 years and, although growth has recently slowed, its ambition for the future remains. Ambition is evident when you compare the number of aircraft orders with the number of aircraft in service for each global region. With 1509 aircraft on order compared with 1650 in service at 07-Jan-2019, the Middle East has by far the highest ratio of orders to fleet in service of any region in the world. Ambition is also evident in terms of planned and progressing airport developments; major airport expansion is currently underway or planned in Abu Dhabi, Jeddah, Dubai, Kuwait and Doha.
If you have visited the Middle East and seen some of the landmark projects and installations, you will know that sometimes even the most daring dreams can become a reality. So, when it comes to doing business in the Middle East, listen to all proposals with an open mind and be ready to stretch your thinking!
A consequence of this ambition is that it’s not uncommon for plans to change when new technology or new concepts become available, so flexibility in planning and design is essential from the outset. Budgeting for contingencies (changes to plans, or redesigns) is also advisable both in terms of costs and timescales.
Physical presence matters
Whereas business in other parts of the world is increasingly conducted by email, video conference and phone calls, here it’s all about being in the same room. Trust is a commodity you have to earn through repeated social interactions where body language matters sometimes more than the words that are spoken. It takes time to reach the point with new contacts where the conversation is about the commercial opportunity rather than about you, your family or the industry in general. Since setting up the aviation office in the Middle East, the team here has spent many hours and days being visible to prospective clients, speaking at conferences, getting to know people and today that effort is paying off.
The valuing of physical presence also extends to how work is delivered. Customers in the Middle East like to embed service providers with local teams, to see them ‘walk the talk’. It’s why Egis has 1,400 people across 13 different offices in the Middle East, and presence in all the major cities and countries with the exception of Iraq, Syria and Yemen. When I visit a client in a neighbouring country to discuss a project, I invite our local resident team to accompany me, and that team will then help with following up actions, arranging logistics, and developing the customer relationship after I return to base.
Within Egis we value physical presence at our Regional Headquarters too. We already enjoy the benefits of sitting alongside directors and experts from other Egis divisions: rail, road, water, buildings, urban development. We’ve found a truly enriching exchange of ideas is possible, and that we have common clients too. So, we’re taking this a step further with plans to combine the teams of Egis and Projacs in the coming months into single offices, one per city. This will create larger Egis hubs where even more ideas can cross fertilize and greater efficiencies are possible.
My word is your contract
Another cultural difference, whose impact is often underestimated, is that of contracts. In this region, when you shake on a deal, or give someone your word (spoken or written), you are committing to following through. Contracts are viewed as a necessary formality, but something that should not delay the start of work. This differs fundamentally from how business is conducted in many other parts of the world, including Europe, where signed contracts are required before work can begin. When people, rather than contracts are at the centre of the business decision, it also means that when senior personnel change in the customer organisation, there can be a refocusing of priorities, and previously ‘certain’ contracts can disappear.
For Egis in the Middle East, part of a global business with its roots and its HQ in Europe, this causes regular headaches. We understand the requirements of our own business, but we also respect the words and the intentions of our customers. It’s a cultural conundrum that challenges us daily.
Whilst there are many things that are different about doing business in the Middle East, there are also important commonalities that draw us together with colleagues from other parts of the world. We seek excellence in everything we do, and we prefer long term partnerships to short term flings. We care about image, and we invest time and effort in nurturing it. We observe status and hierarchy, and expect others to do so too. We share an appetite for success, a desire to negotiate a good deal, and a need to be respected (if not liked). Perhaps not so different after all?